(Reuters) - As infections of the novel coronavirus rise steadily in Brazil and threaten to cause chaos in its densely populated favelas, some of the country's leading athletes are stepping up to help the most vulnerable communities.
Olympic judo medallist Flavio Canto is among those giving his time and money to battle the COVID-19 outbreak in South America’s biggest nation, which has a confirmed 13,717 infections and 667 deaths from the virus as of Tuesday.
"When all this is over, those that have a lot are going to have a lot less but they’ll still have more than most, and they have an obligation to help those who have nothing," Rio de Janeiro judoka Canto told Reuters.
A bronze medallist in the men's -81kg category in Athens, Canto is almost as famous in Brazil for his work with the Instituto Reacao, a charity that uses martial arts to help transform young people’s lives.
Canto is raising funds for a project that will give a monthly stipend to thousands of families in Rio and Cuiaba who are under quarantine or suffering financially due to unemployment or the need to self-isolate.
The monthly stipend of around 100 reais ($19.15) comes in the form of a pre-paid cash card that can be used in local supermarkets.
In a nation where corruption is rife and the government's coronavirus strategy has come under scrutiny, Canto said athletes were the ideal group to spearhead relief efforts because they are trusted by the people.
"One of the big problems in Brazil is that people lack the confidence their money and resources will be distributed properly,” he said by telephone from Rio.
“My charity has 20 years of experience in that field and the other athletes are people with the same profile, who have experience in charity work and therefore credibility.”
DUNGA URGES DONATIONS
One such athlete is Dunga, who captained Brazil's national soccer team to their 1994 World Cup win.
The former Internacional and Fiorentina midfielder is working with business contacts and former players – including ex-Brazil internationals Jorginho and Edmilson and Paulo Cesar Tinga - to help disadvantaged communities in his home state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Like Canto, Dunga has run a charitable foundation for many years, helping orphanages, old folks’ homes and social projects.
In the last few days he has persuaded supermarket owners, food producers and transportation companies to donate and distribute more than 10 tons of food to local charities as more and more people suffer due to the virus.
"We saw that there are a lot of people in the favelas who aren’t working and they don’t have food so I called the friends I still play football with and said let’s do something," Dunga told Reuters.
Dunga has spent much of his spare time over the last week not just calling friends asking for help but also loading boxes of produce into trucks and delivering fruit and vegetables to local charities.
His closest helpers are former players but some active professionals have also contributed.
Argentine midfielder Andres D’Alessandro, who plays for Porto Alegre side Internacional, was with him on Tuesday as they loaded sacks of produce into cars and trucks.
Local media have also reported that Brazilian internationals Neymar, Roberto Firmino and Paulinho have also contributed in their home states.
Dunga encouraged more to get involved.
"We ex-players still have doors open to us," he said. "Imagine what the players who are active today could do."
($1 = 5.2214 reais)
(Reporting by Andrew Downie in London; Editing by Peter Rutherford)